Culture essential to evangelism, says Archbishop Kenneth Richards
Used Bounty Killer’s ‘Look Into My Eyes’ at UN event
A quick scroll through the Instagram page of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kingston, Kenneth Richards, says a lot about the measure of the man.
From pictures of him smiling with parishioners; cutting his birthday cake with his mother, Holdroyd McDonald; happily dancing and singing with pre-schoolers in Zimbabwe to rafting on the Rio Grande, Archbishop Richards is certainly not averse to having fun. But it is clear that he balances this with his mission, which is the preaching of the gospel.
One post sums up his message: “God loves you! ... He makes us realise that his love is not cheerless, but pure joy, welling up whenever we allow ourselves to be loved by him: ‘The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory. He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” (Zeph 3:17).
And singing is one of the things that the archbishop does quite well. His celebrity status took off recently when he debuted his version of a 1995 Bounty Killer classic, Miss Ivy Last Son, during the National Leadership Prayer Breakfast. He substituted his own message-filled lyrics urging listeners to Run come up inna di church now, bwoy/Listen to the gospel, bwoy/Siddung pon di church bench/And yuh life will change.
The brouhaha that followed, while not totally unexpected, was unprecedented for the archbishop because as he pointed out, it was not the first time he was performing the track. From as far back as 1995, Archbishop Richards had reworked the lyrics and has been performing the ditty on special occasions.
“I use it periodically - when the occasion arises. The first time was at Ghetto Splash [a popular, inner-city stage show], and I do it at funerals for persons who were gunslingers. The reaction is usually pretty much like now, but this time it was overwhelming,” Archbishop Richards told The Sunday Gleaner.
Although he wouldn’t describe himself as a Bounty Killer fan, he has used another song from the Poor People’s Governor’s catalogue to promote peace. Look into my eyes, tell me what you see?/Can you feel my pain? Am I your enemy?/Give us a b etter way, things are really bad/The only friend I know is this gun I have/Listen to my voice, this is not a threat/Now you see the nine, are you worried yet?/You’ve been talking ‘bout, you want the war to cease/But when you show us hope, we will show you peace.
“ Look Into my Eyes has a powerful message. I have used it in inner-city programmes and at the UN Day Against Racism and Discrimination. It is important to connect with the people and use the symbols and the positive elements of the culture to do this. I have used Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All as well,” he said.
Archbishop Richards noted that using the culture to communicate is essential to evangelism. He has done stage shows with dancehall artistes who have converted to Christianity and used these events to promote peace in some of the communities in which he has pastored. He recalled with a laugh that reggae singer Barrington Levy “posted” him once at a stage show by not turning up as promised.
“You need to know the culture and the social behaviours that are linked to it. A lot of the music is message music — negative sometimes, but positive sometimes. When I was pastoring in Waterhouse during the ‘war’ years, I would attend the street dances and take the mic and pray for peace in the community. I remember the first dance I went [to]. I reached at about 10:30 p.m., and nobody was there. They told me that I had to come at about 1:30 a.m. So I went home and set my alarm clock and was back at the designated time. After a while, when they were planning these events, I would be invited to come and pray,” he shared.
He also noted that the Minister’s Fraternal was also quite active, “and we would have meetings with the gangs, and if there were any upheavals, we would go into the areas”. That is all part and parcel of what Richards terms his “ministry of presence”.
He admits that his role as archbishop means that he is preoccupied with administration and has far less time to be on the ground interacting with youngsters and even learning the latest dancehall tunes. But Richards, who served the church in Antigua, where he was appointed Bishop of St John’s, prior to being installed as the seventh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kingston in 2016, is really just focused on leading wherever he is placed.
His latest project is a violence-prevention programme for which he is seeking funding. He is also arranging an exhibition of artwork from the Scriptures at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
“I enjoy being a servant of the Lord and of the Church and to proclaim the gospel through whatever medium. Whatever the Church asks me to do, I accept without reservation. You get a call to say that ‘the Holy Father is appointing you [to the post of archbishop]’, and I accept the wisdom of the Church,” said Richards, who had an audience with the last pope.
A convert to Catholicism at nine years old, the young Kenneth was attracted by the doctrine of transubstantiation, but he never really had any desire to join the priesthood, which would require the vow of chastity, among others.
“My life has always been church even though I wanted to get married,” he shared. “I was invited to become a member of the Aspirancy Programme in the ‘70s. It was my friends who invited me to accompany them. I remember telling them, ‘I am not interested. I want to get married and have 12 children.’”
Richards didn’t have the dozen children, but he does have a pet. In Antigua, he had an Akita. Now, he has a pup named Lea.
Quizzed on his take on the pope’s recent viral, feather-ruffling comment suggesting that people who substitute pets for kids exhibit “a certain selfishness,” he had his own suggestion.
“We should use it for self-examination instead of being defensive,” Archbishop Richards said soberly.